“And God saw that it was ‘good’…”

Anyone passingly familiar with philosophy over the last, say, millennium, should be comfortable with the various uses of inverted commas, indirect quotations, ironic scare quotes, and the like. Although I assume any reader of this blog is familiar with such technicalities, I would like to preface this post with some biographical background about such devices, in order to show how I came to formulate the point I want to make in this post. I believe that a necessary condition for doing philosophy well, is hearing and reading sympathetically. Further, while I don’t agree with Nietzsche that a thinker’s thought is just his personal apologia, I do believe that knowing a thinker’s personal history and dispositions can help clarify his thoughts as I try to examine them sympathetically. But enough prolegomena to my prolegomenon.

When I was first exposed to Socrates as a freshman, I was nearly taken in by the academic squabbles I saw about just what the Socratic method might have been, until I was graced with a pure vision of the Socratic method, a vision which not only made reading Plato a lot more fun, but also made it completely evident why Socrates got executed.

For the uninitiated, who might be so intimidated by words like “maieutic” and “aporia” that they fear the Socratic method is hopelessly inscrutable and contested, I will share my pure vision: The Socratic method simply amounts to listening in on any normal conversation, randomly selecting a word or phrase that is uttered, and then suddenly interrupting the speakers by repeating that word or phrase with a strong inquisitive tone and a look of sheer bewilderment. The profundity with which a Socratic interrogates what is apparently an uncontroversial phrase will stir up an intolerable sophistical anxiety in the interogee, at which point, like a suspect under a hot lamp, he will attempt to say something less bewildering, whereupon that something will be turned against him, ad nauseam.

Example: If Ben claims McCain is too old for the job, but Jerry retorts that Obama is too young for it, the would-be Socratic could simply interject, “Too ‘old‘?” Then, once Ben and Jerry (unwittingly) invite the Socratic into their conversation (like a child unwittingly inviting a vampire into her house) by responding to his interjection, the Socratic can start picking cherries, or shooting fish in the barrel, or both, until the cup of hemlock arrives. Even an attempt to preempt the method can be turned into Socratic gold. A: “Excuse me, sir, we’re having a conversation.” B: “A ‘conversation‘?” Sheer Socratic success!

Trust me, I tried the method out countless times, and I had just as much success (without the hemlock) as Socrates did in confusing and irritating otherwise happy, intelligent people. The only snag that might come up (apart from the obvious threat of physical and legal retaliation), is when some cynical wag tries to stifle your brilliance with silent gestures or one-word answers like Yes and No. But then you just switch to Plan B, the Copycat Game. Your interlocutor will be speaking again in no time. (In “no” time?)

Later, in my senior year, perhaps, I drafted a parody skit about a famous French professor, Dr. Mallors Peaumeau, teaching a class of typical undergrads at a upper-mid level college in the States. Professor Peaumeau’s speech was more or less a series of cumbersome words strung together into vaporous statements by the frequent scare quotes he would throw up around many words. It would be part-parody of the vacuity of deconstructionism, part-homage to Nabokov’s Professor Pnin, albeit in a postmodern key. [cue thick Frawnch aksent]

“In the same ‘way’ that ‘you’, in a sense, ‘read’ Proust’s ‘memoir’, and gradually find ‘yourself’, as it were, drawn ‘into’ his ‘world’, so the alert ‘reader’ of Kant will ‘find’ himself, or, as it were, herself, drawn into ‘the’ world of ‘pure’ phenomena. Quite the opposite for a ‘careful’, if I may, reader of Schopenhauer: he, in one sense, or perhaps two, will find himself ‘drawn out’ of the ‘world’.”

The good professeur’s mannerisms would serve him even for mundane statements, like, “I must ‘go’ to the bathroom ‘now’.”

In any case, not too long ago, I read Anthony Kenny’s Wittgenstein, wherein Kenny takes great care to clarify just how he, and Wittgenstein, intends to use inverted commas, direct quotes, etc. Thus, those powerful little diacriticals were on my mind in a fresh way and became even more vivid this week after I read the transcript of Nancy Pelosi’s notorious August 24 “Meet the Press” interview. I am always tickled by how transcribers transcribe every jot and tittle. And who decides if someone said “er” instead of “uh”, or “ehm” instead of “um”? Is there a phonetic dictionary for off the cuff speaking? And why don’t the sounds of someone’s hands or lapels scraping the microphone don’t get transcribed? Sigh.

So, with all of this percolating in my mind over the years, I started toying with a piece of dialogue in order to scrutinize how we do, and perhaps ought or ought not, use the referential diacriticals. Consider three propositions:

1) “I think the best thing, ahem, ungh––pardon me, my throat’s been sore––I think the best thing we should do is take I-95 to I-10, and then get dinner.”

2) “I think the best thing, ‘ahem’, ‘ungh’––pardon me, my throat’s been sore––I think the best thing we should do is take I-95 to I-10, and then get dinner.”

3) “I think the best thing,” ahem, ungh “––pardon me, my throat’s been sore––I think the best thing we should do is take I-95 to I-10, and then get dinner.”

1) is a straightforward use of onomatopoeia to indicate a clearing of the throat. (I was appeared to ahemly?) In 1) “ahem” and “ungh” are meant to be counted as much a part of what the speaker said as every other word.

2) is more sophisticated and ironic proposition, in that the speaker is consciously using “ahem” and “ungh” as ways to interrupt his normal flow of speech. Perhaps he’s being passive-aggressive, as if he had just asked for water and had been ignored, and was trying to get a drink without just saying it. The important difference between 1) and 2) is that the former indicates a biological action (presumably unintentional), namely, coughing, while the latter indicates a direct usage of certain sounds intended to convey some kind of subtle meaning.

3) is the form of this proposition that really got me thinking about the difference between 1) and 2). There seems to be a tension, or a paradox, in the rigor of transcripted speech, and it is this: while the goal of transcribing is to record “exactly what someone said”, it looks nonsensical to actually put words, or quasi-words, like “ahem” and “ungh” and “meh”, and the like, into someone’s mouth, when she in fact never even said (i.e., consciously uttered) those quasi-words. Paradoxically, precisely by trying to be literally faithful, the transcriber becomes literally fictitious. 2) is the only form of diacritical reference that should use those quasi-words, and yet, even more paradoxically, “ahem” and “oof” are not things a person can really say, but are simply sounds a person makes when they feel a certain way. (Or are they things a person can say? I bracket for now the question of whether speech can properly be a wordless bodily action; I believe it can be, but that’s a topic for a later post.) Only when we put the sounds in the right diacriticals do they assume actual meaning and intention. Finding an “ahem” break into your speech is worlds removed from intentionally placing an ‘ahem’ in it, as both you and any competent listener instantly recognizes.

3) serves to highlight how quasi-words that “leak out” in normal speech belong neither to recorded speech, nor to a class of ironic sounds dressed in diacriticals, and because I am not sure where to place it in my long love affair with referential diacriticals, it got me thinking about how it might work in other settings. Not long into such pondering, I recalled the words of Genesis, wherein God looked upon what He made and saw that it was good. And then, in a (for me) typically lucid non sequitur, I saw a possible solution to good ol’ Euthyphro’s dilemma (ED).

As I’m sure everyone still with me this far knows, ED boils down to the question, “Why is goodness good?” In other words, is something intrinsically good, in which case even the gods, or God, would have to recognize its goodness, or is something good only because God decrees that it is good? Traditionally, theists have rejected the former clause, since it seems to impose an extrinsic standard of value upon God (a view I will refer to as “divine extrinsicism“), thus compromising His status as the Almighty and one source of all being and goodness. By doing so, a good many theists have opted for positive divine voluntarism, according to which, yes, ma’am, anything that is good is good only because God says it is. Consequently, anything could have been good in a different world, if God had decided to call it ‘good’, including something as seemingly intrinsically heinous as torturing an infant or ethnic cleansing.

It goes without saying that, for any theist less than enthused about worshiping either a Demiurge or a blindly whimsical potentate, a third option recommends itself. This third option, as argued by, among others, William Lane Craig, claims that ED is, for a Christian, a false dilemma, since a Christian has a way of handling both horns of the dilemma without being tossed or gored by them. In Christian theology, God Himself is intrinsically good, and therefore, whatever He wills, will be good, not based on its own intrinsic goodness, but because, in being willed by an intrinsically good God, it is derivatively but truly good. Precisely because God both is good in se and is the source of good, nothing He does can violate goodness or His nature, since, again, they are one and the same.

While I am probably mangling Craig’s argument in key ways (and without putting too fine a point on it, since I want to agree with his solution), I find his solution unsatisfying. For one thing, it looks like covert voluntarism, in so far as it practically amounts to the same thing. If you begin by asserting God just is good, then you can have Him will anything He likes, even if it shocks us, since whatever He does is good by definition. For example, if, ex hypothesi, I am by definition a perfect cook, then no matter how awful what I bring out of the kitchen may seem, you should happily dig in, knowing that a perfect cook can only make perfect food; to do otherwise would be to violate his own nature as a perfect cook. In effect, a cook perfect by definitional fiat could write the menu as he went (he could even quite literally cook the books and make a profit! Rimshot!). In other words, if “goodness” is just shorthand for “God-did-it-ness”, then I don’t see how Craig’s position is significantly different from old school voluntarism. One of the horns of the dilemma turns out be longer than Craig admits, I think.

A second worry I have is whether Craig’s via media really even begins to escape from the other horn, that of there being goodness extrinsic to God. After all, the basis for claiming that God is good by nature amounts to saying God is obliged by nature to do only good. What is this ‘nature’ that obliges God? His own nature, of course. But what is the nature of God’s nature? Why, nothing else than Goodness with a divine will! And there we are again, squirming on the proud horn of divine extrinsicism.

A possible way I saw to move ahead is to take seriously the matter of referential diacriticals as indicators of reality, not simply verbal noises or customs. The reason I took you through all I did about my past encounters with inverted commas, was not just to make you laugh (…?), but to imply that there may be more, much more, than meets the eye in how we use those diacriticals. Perhaps referential diacriticals have such a hallowed place in philosophy not just due to respect for custom and protocol, but in fact because they mutely testify to a powerful truth about reality. (By analogy, what some crass geneticists call “junk DNA” may have hung around as long as it has precisely because it is not junk at all.)

If we imagine an art critic beholding a painting, when he writes his review that evening for the Sunday post, he has (to keep things simple), two choices: either to call it a good painting or to pan it as a bad painting. If he pans it, other critics might pooh pooh him as a curmudgeon, and then they might rush to behold the painting themselves, in order, hopefully, to form a brazenly divergent opinion. But if they all end up agreeing that the painting is no good, and even if your average Joe has a hard time liking it, we see the painting’s intrinsic no-goodness emerges as a real property of the painting, a property that was “in” the painting before any critic espied it, a property in some sense “waiting” to be ascribed with no-goodness. Alternatively, if the first critic lavishes praise on the painting, and then his rivals eventually come to agree with him, and even average Joes buy miniature reproductions of it to tape to their dashboards, we see how its goodness, its intrinsic beauty, was “there”, waiting to be seen and ascribed in the noonday light of reality. (I ignore the artist’s opinion, since he is biased. And an artist.)

Alas, art criticism is not so simple. What happens if there are not unanimous reviews, but a maelstrom of mixed reviews? Some critics pan it, while others adore it, some want to praise it but note certain decisive flaws, some are indifferent, and so on. If it is ascribed with so many different values, what attribute was “there” all along “waiting” in the painting?

If we were faced with such a standstill of value ascription, we would have to turn away from the painting and consider the critics themselves. Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder in so far as the beholder’s eye is equipped to see beautiful things. Likewise, the redness (egads, a secondary attribute!) of roses is only in the eye of the flower keeper if, in turn, the florist’s eye is equipped to see certain wavelengths of light (phew, a primary attribute!). Determining the intrinsic goodness or not-so-goodness of a painting, then, entails a look at the painting as well as at the competence of the critics pronouncing upon––even if we are among them.

What this has to do with ED, is that, in so far as attributes like piety, beauty, and the like, are only meaningful to subjects that can appreciate them as “beholdable” values, there may actually be no conflict (and, what’s more, may not even possibly be a conflict), between value-voluntarism and divine extrinsicism. In other words, God’s sovereignty over morals and values may very well be uncompromised by the intrinsic value of His creatures, even if He does not voluntaristically impose goodness upon them as if they were tabulae rasae. ED, in other words, really may be a false dilemma, as Craig maintains, but not for the reasons Craig claims. This is so, perhaps, because the creature’s goodness is only meaningfully good or beautiful in the eyes of God.

Apart from His sovereign gaze, creatures have the sufficient conditions for being ascribed with goodness, but are not actually good to anyone, and thus not good for anything (since they don’t fulfill the necessary condition of ‘being good unto…’). It is intrinsic to values to be valuable to someone, or to some community, to be valued by someone or some group of people. Until a competent viewer speaks the word, “It is good,” about a painting, and looks upon it as good in his eyes, the painting is only good in a potential, yet not voluntaristically, way. God arbitrarily calling baby-torture good would be a necessary condition for it to be good, but that ascription would not be any kind of sufficient condition for baby-torture really being good. Torturing babies can’t be good even if, ex hypothesi, God says it is, but baby-torture can’t actually be without God seeing it as not good and calling it like He sees it. (The analogy of a referee, endowed with good eyes by nature and trained to see things most fans can’t, recognizing and calling a bad shot and yet not making the bad shot strongly draws my attention at this point, but I must bracket that line of inquiry for another time.) Moreover, because God is good in and of Himself, He is not obliged to “learn” what goodness means by referring to good things outside Himself. The goodness of His creatures stems from the likeness they bear to the goodness He sees in Himself, and this goodness cannot have any limiting power over God, since all the modes of goodness in creatures do not and cannot apply to God, in so far as He is beyond every category.

I joked earlier about ignoring the artist’s opinion of his own work of art, but now I want to give the artist his proper place in this conceit. An artist can recognize the more or less autonomous goodness in one of his paintings (without just saying it is so to protect his ego), and yet his goodness as an artist is not limited or defined by the paintings he produces, since they can only be judged in correlation to the total aesthetic vision and values the artist bears within himself. The paintings may be good in their own proper ways, but they are not good in the way the artist is, since their goodness depends precisely on the artist first having an “inner eye” for the “beauty within”. Crucially, as well, the goodness upon which the artist forms objets d’art, as a principle of his own nature and will, does not and cannot correspond to any mode of goodness in any of his paintings, precisely because they have value only by virtue of manifesting the artist’s immaterial, abstract, emotional, somatic, etc. values in qualitatively different ways as material, symbolic, chromatic, mediated, etc. entities. If van Gogh never painted a single one of his works, he would still possess the goodness of his own inner beauty, a power and light from which, as we know in retrospect, those works emerged.

I believe (along with Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker) that the analogy of the good artist recognizing good paintings (viz., as real but inferior analogues of his own goodness, yet which do not generate the canons of what makes him good), has striking potential for illuminating God’s relation to the goodness of the world and the goodness of goodness. If God never created any “pious” things, which is to say, if He never spoke of them and looked upon them as good, as we read He did in Genesis, He would lack nothing of the goodness He speaks of and sees in Himself as the triune perichoresis of love. If a painting were able to behold itself, it would not only be intrinsically good (i.e., fulfill sufficient conditions for a competent eye to see it as good), but also would be self-autonomously good (i.e., would fulfill the necessary condition of being ascribed with goodness). But the idea of a self-beholding work of art makes nonsense out of what we experience in aesthetic pleasure. It is gibberish to say, “This piece speaks”, but perfectly coherent to say, “This piece speaks to me.” While the painting is not voluntaristically and artificially forced to say something to me, as its beholder, it can only really express or manifest its own goodness by saying something to its competently sighted beholder. I suggest the same contrast holds in connection with God and morality.

What my proposal––and I use that word to differentiate this from a proper “argument”––boils down to is this: since the values invoked in ED are “hypostatic” (i.e., have meaning only in reference to their ‘impact’ upon a competent observer), they depend on God’s approval of them as good, even though in that very act, God is recognizing them as good. Or, to use those diacriticals and those august words in Genesis which have brought me all the way to this artful proposal:

A) “God looked upon all He had made, and saw that it was good.”

B) “God looked upon all He had made, and saw that it was ‘good’.”

C) “God looked upon all He had made, and saw that it was,” good.

Consider the crucial difference between these three propositions (by recalling my earlier examples about I-95).

A) is what a divine extrinsicist says about God and creation; God must admit the goodness of goodness just like any other creature.

B) is what a voluntarist says about God and creation; God can say whatever He likes about the world, and we good creatures will smile and nod.

C) is what I think I am trying to say; God helps us to see goodness that He sees by seeing it in the light of the goodness He knows as Himself.

The good which God spoke over creation is neither a self-spoken word (as in A)), nor a mere noise (a cough or grunt) that God makes in His voluntaristic rambling (as in B)). It is something both encompassing and jettisoning those options. It is the word God speaks about His act of seeing goodness in what He created. He is free not to say that word, and merely behold creation as creation, since its goodness is not so extrinsically potent as to force his praise, but, since He can see something in what He made that resonates with the good He knows in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he affirms it is good, as He knows it from within.

It is my hope that this post, admittedly on the long side, will spur my betters here either to reject it posthaste and seek a better proposal (nay, a proper argument), or to improve my proposal into a workable argument.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam in saecula saeculorum!

3 Responses

  1. One of my favorite quotes on the Socratic method is as follows (and I do apologize for the length):

    In scarcely one of the dialogues up to and including Book I of the Republic (if, as some scholars assert, this was originally composed separately) does Socrates answer his own original question; he always leaves the interlocutor in a fury. How are we to understand this procedure? When the Delphic oracle described Socrates as the wisest of the Athenians he concluded that he deserved this title because only he, among all, knew that he knew nothing. So it would not be surprising if Socrates envisaged his duty as a teacher as that of making his pupils wiser by making them discover their own ignorance. To this it may be objected that Socrates is too often pictured by Plato as driving his interlocutors into an exasperated fury, and that this is scarcely a convincing method of moral education. But infuriating someone may indeed be the only method of disturbing him sufficiently to force him into philosophical reflection upon moral matters. Of course, for the majority of those so assaulted there will be no admirable consequences of this kind. But there is no evidence that Socrates expected the activity of an intellectual gadfly to benefit more than a tiny minority. Moreover Socrates’ method is both more intelligible and more justifiable if it is understood as aimed at securing a particular sort of change in his hearers rather than arriving at a particular conclusion. It is not just that he does not arrive at conclusions; it is rather that his arguments are ad hominem in this sense, that they derive contradictory or otherwise absurd consequences from admissions secured from his interlocutor, and induce the interlocutor to retract. This desire to secure conviction in the interlocutor is underlined in the Gorgias, where Plato makes Socrates say to Polus that he will have achieved nothing unless he can convince him. It is therefore a mistake to complain of the particularity of the Socratic method. The whole point lies in its particularity. (Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics)

  2. “But things of sense cannot lead our understanding to read in them the essence of the Divine Substance, inasmuch as they are effects inadequate to the power that caused them. Nevertheless our understanding is thereby led to some knowledge of God, namely, of His existence and of other attributes that must necessarily be attributed to the First Cause. … For the Divine Mind of its own comprehensiveness covers the whole extent of its substance, and therefore perfectly understands its own essence, and knows all that is knowable about itself….”, St. Thomas d’Aquino, SCG I, 3

    Just a reference I wanted to keep together with this, lest it slip my mind.

  3. Elliot:

    I have long been convinced that the ED is a false dilemma and the only challenge is how to explain why. I think you’ve come up with a real advance in meeting that challenge, even if you ramble a bit for the sake of entertainment value. I think you’re right that God and the goodness of good things are interrelated along the analogy you suggest, and can be expressed with the careful shifting of diacriticals to yield different illocutionary acts with the same words.

    As for coming up with a more rigorous argument: well, stop being so darned entertaining and start sounding more like a logician.😉


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